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The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire’s secret maid of the nineteenth century

In the Sunday edition of The Call of San Francisco, dated May 7, 1899, there is an article titled “Mamie Pleasant, Angel or Arch in the House of Mystery.” It is a portrait of a woman looking directly at you with strong piercing eyes, resonating with a powerful aura of discipline and strength of character.

This woman is Mary Ellen Pleasant, nicknamed “Mamie Pleasant”. She was a black woman born into slavery who became a millionaire entrepreneur, a staunch abolitionist, as well as a large shareholder in the Underground Railroad. Her story is fascinating, but unfortunately, she is not widely remembered or known in history, in part because so many of her activities and accomplishments took place in secret or were mired in controversy.

Here is the remarkable story of a woman who did not play by the rules and defied the world and the time in which she was born.

Who was Mary Ellen Pleasant?

Mary Ellen Pleasant was a self-made American millionaire from the nineteenth century who built a massive investment portfolio to the tune of thirty million dollars. Her years as a domestic servant taught her to be invisible, eavesdropping on all the wealthy people she served as they discussed investments and business ideas. Then she used all her knowledge to invest her inheritance and went on to increase her fortune into the millions. She didn’t spend all of her fortune living a life of luxury but became a great advocate for the death penalty. She helped hundreds of slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and settle in the free states. There is a day dedicated to her in San Francisco and a park where she is hailed as the “Mother of California Civil Rights”.

How did Mary spend her early years?

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
A 19th Century Shop. Representational image

Much about Mary’s birth and early life is unclear. Although biographers say Mary was born into slavery in 1814 on a plantation in Georgia, Mary herself claimed she was born free in Philadelphia. Her life before her separation from her parents is not known with certainty.

At a young age, she was sent to live with a white family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, called the Husseys, where she worked as a domestic servant. They were Quakers and abolitionists and ran a store run by Mary Hussey, or “Grandma” Hussey. They sold everything from hooks to charcoal, buying wholesale and selling retail. This is where I worked and learned the ABCs of business. She also learned to read and write, though she had no formal education. While working in the store, she studied men and women a lot, overheard their conversations about investing money, and learned a lot about entrepreneurship. Here I started the basics of running a successful business.

The Husseini family were also abolitionists, which may have sparked their passion for the cause. I loved them and were treated so well. Later, she moved to San Francisco and worked as a domestic servant and cook for another wealthy white family. Being a black woman, she was often a presence that went unnoticed. Mary took full advantage of the situation to continue learning all about investments. She started her journey as an entrepreneur!

Marie and the Underground Railroad

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Mary and James Smith, Underground Railroad. Representational image

Mary married James Smith in 1840, her first husband, whom she may have met in a manic shop. He was a wealthy flower contractor and merchant. Smith is believed to be white or of mixed ancestry. He was also a staunch abolitionist, and they teamed up to help slaves escape via the Underground Railroad away from the slave owners. Mary hid them in safe houses and later helped them settle in the Free States, as well as emigrate to Canada. After four years of marriage, Smith died and left a fortune to Mary. Even after his death, Mary continued her engagement with the Underground Railroad and her support for equal rights.

Mary Ellen became Mary Ellen Pleasant.

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Many and John James Pleasant. Representational image

Mary Ellen became Mary Ellen Pleasant after she began a relationship with a black man named John James Pleasant. Although it was widely speculated that this was her second husband as she had adopted the surname, there is no official record stating that they were married. Biographers believe she met him in New Bedford, a destination on the Underground Railroad. Around this time, the California Gold Rush began, and California joined the Union as a free, non-slavery state. There were so many new avenues and opportunities to earn money regardless of color or race. I decided to take advantage of it, and in 1852 moved to San Francisco.

Mary made her fortune in San Francisco.

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Mary eavesdropping. Representational image(ArtistVMG/shutterstock.com)

Mary was a light-skinned black woman who could sometimes pass as a white woman. When dealing with clients, she used her first husband’s surname to minimize discrimination. She found a job as a cook for a wealthy businessman and had plenty of opportunities to interact with other businessmen in her vicinity. Here, too, I made full use of her invisibility and gained a lot of valuable business acumen with her on-duty eavesdropping. Most men were dismissive of her, and she took full advantage of that.

She amassed a fortune through investments, and her biographer believes that the jobs she held as a domestic servant were a cover-up. It is reported that she earns around $500 per month. With this money, and what she inherited from her first husband, Pleasant invested in real estate and gold and silver mines. By 1860, she owned boarding houses, restaurants, and a chain of laundry businesses.

Mary’s partnership with Thomas Bell

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Mary and Thomas Bell. Image credit: Wikimedia

In the 1870s, Mary met Thomas Bell, who worked for the Bank of California, and formed a decade-long business partnership with him. This proved very profitable for both of them. Bill was already making good money with the quick silver trade, but he realized what an adventurous spirit Mary Ellen Pleasant was. They make a series of investments, led by Mary. Mary was officially black and feared that people would now ask her about her money. So, I started placing investments and properties in Bill’s name. Business boomed more than ever. Pleasant and Bell both made a fortune from the partnership. Soon they had shares in restaurants, dairies, laundries, boarding houses, and even Wells Fargo Bank. By 1875 they had $30 million, which is about $850 million today.

Pleasant bought a thirty-room Victorian mansion in the heart of San Francisco, with huge grounds and lavish furnishings. The home price is equivalent to $2.4 million today. She lived in this mansion with Thomas Bell and his family. Mary controlled the combined wealth of Bill and herself. She went on to purchase more real estate, including a thousand-acre ranch in Sonoma Valley.

Mary’s partnership with Thomas Peel was financially profitable for both of them but became complicated because Peel’s family did not approve of it. Rumors began to circulate about her alleged affair with Thomas Bell, which later made her life much more difficult.

Mary’s contribution to the abolitionist movement

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Abolitionist movement. Image credit: Library of Congress

Mary first became acquainted with the abolitionist cause while living with the Husseys. She quickly became one of the most important contributors to the movement. After making her fortune, she went on to help free slaves, many of whom would later become important leaders within the black community. She employed them in her business, paid them, and gave them important positions. By then, she was seen as a wealthy business owner by the white community, but she kept her work a secret.

In 1857, she helped John Brown, another abolitionist, raid the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry to foment a slave revolt in the South. She sent him thirty thousand dollars for the case, but the plan fell through. When John Brown was executed by hanging, a letter was found in his pocket that said: “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow has been struck, there will be more money to help.” But no one suspected that this was written by Mary Ellen Pleasant.

In her autobiography, Pleasant admitted that she was responsible for financing Brown’s attempt at an armed slave uprising. In 1865, when the Civil Rights Movement ended, Mary officially changed her race from white to black to address racial tensions in the country. Mary wrote in her diary that she would rather be a corpse than a coward.

Pleasant v. North Beach and Mission Railroad Company

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
An early streetcar. Representational image

Pleasant has been referred to as the “Mother of Civil Rights” in California. In 1866, Pleasant and two other black women were removed from one of the city’s streetcars due to racial discrimination. Latif, of course, didn’t go down without a fight. Lawsuits were filed against the two streetcar companies, which resulted in one company beginning to allow African Americans to ride their streetcars. But the other did not back down. The case reached the California Supreme Court. Sarah paved the way for the desegregation of streetcars in California.

Her nicknames were “Mamie Pleasant” and “Voodoo Queen”.

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Mary as “Voodoo Queen.”

San Francisco may have been a free country, but segregation and hostility continued to increase. Mary Pleasant’s fortune soon became a subject of discussion, and the country in which she lived for many years became hostile to her. Rumors were that she was Belle’s mistress, as well as other rumors claiming that she practiced the art of voodoo. Her boarding houses were accused of being brothels, and she was accused of controlling white men through evil forces.

Then came the infamous trial where a senator was accused of seducing and abandoning a young girl named Sarah Hill. Lawyers alleged that she was Pleasant’s girlfriend, and Pleasant was accused of using dark forces to manipulate her and capture the senator. This trial was the talk of the town and was reported everywhere. Mary became the evil “Voodoo Queen” who had supernatural powers. During this time, she also earned the nickname “Mamie Pleasant” due to her years as a domestic servant.

The last days of Mary Pleasant

The story of Mamie Pleasant, a millionaire's secret maid of the nineteenth century
Mary Ellen’s grave. Image credit: @thelipstickkillerz/facebook

Mary’s life changed in 1899 when Thomas Bell died, and his widow published a full-page article titled “Queen of Voodoos” defaming Pleasant. The press was harsh, accusing her of witchcraft and evil. Bill’s wife and son sued Pleasant over their combined wealth of $1 million. Ugly court battles ensued. By then, her reputation had already been ruined by allegations and rumors.

Most of her property and shares were, unfortunately, in Bell’s name. She could not prove that she is the legal owner of her fortune. But she fought fiercely and showed the court that her palace had been designed and bought by her. But by then, it was a losing battle. Her reputation, her home, her fortune – it’s all gone. Forced into poverty, Mary relied on her friends and well-wishers to put a roof over her head. Pleasant died in 1904 at the age of 89.

By the time of her death, Mary Ellen Pleasant was a popular figure in San Francisco. Her story is unconventional, meandering its way through blazing ambition, affection, shrewd business acumen, and fighting fiercely for a cause. She was not a typical selfless martyr, but rather an enigma to be remembered and given much more credit than she is today.

Smith

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